The Phillips Collection, that stately Dupont museum filled with Renoirs and Rothkos alike, that 100-year-old collection of some of the finest art in D.C., is doing something a little different in 2018. While you may know them for their fun Phillips After 5 events or their accomplished exhibitions, this February they kicked off a new project. After nine months of meeting with community members, chatting with partners and pitching programs, they opened up a brand new campus in Southeast. Located inside of the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), The Phillips has devised a series of activities that are infused with art.
From low barrier activities like coloring, to using emoji dice to tell a story, the activities seem like they’re geared toward kids at first blush, but it’s funny how quickly you can fall into the meditative practice of making a collage or drawing a leaf, no matter your age. As Suzanne Wright, the director of education and community engagement and I glue colorful pieces of paper together, we chat about the sneaky power of art.
“Everything we do, like this, has relations to color theory, but also science because it’s nature inspired,” she says. Pointing to the emoji dice she adds, “That one is all about language arts, story telling and narrative.”
Wright has been working on [email protected] project from the beginning. While the the obvious goal is to bring high quality art programs east of the river, The Phillips isn’t just hosting art talks and screening movies, they’ve spent months working with community members to figure out what would be the most helpful for them. Along with their already robust children’s programming, they’ve been focusing on art and wellness, especially when it comes to caregivers. Wright is quick to point out that this isn’t just a one way street, “One of the big underlying goals is that while we’re serving the community, the community is also teaching us,” she says. “The Phillips has a lot to learn… We have tons of blind spots as an institution that was founded almost a hundred years ago.”
The thing that strikes you walking into [email protected] is how joyful it is. The bright in airy space is filled with color. It’s warm and inviting. As partners spill in to chat about an event happening over the weekend, the room also fills with laughter. The Phillips clearly wants to be a natural part of the community. As we talked about the campuses goals, dreams and struggles, it become clear they’re putting in the work.
Brightest Young Things: How did The Phillips and THEARC come together?
Suzanne Wright: THEARC has been open a little over ten years now. Their current executive director Rahsaan Bernard, awesome guy, he calls it a humanitarian mall because it has the Washington Ballet and the Children’s Hospital. It has four schools now, a girl’s school, boy’s school, an outpost of Trinity University and AppleTree now, for the little ones. Their headquarters is upstairs. So they do teacher training and they’ve connected us with Head Start and stuff like that. So they invited us to consider being the new art museum partner here.
BYT: So they were looking for an art museum?
Wright: They had one. The Corcoran.
Wright: So they were looking for another art museum partner, and all of their partners have to be extremely high quality. One of the biggest things here is that folks east of the river don’t get leftovers. They get the same high quality programming. So it’s been a two and a half year process. It’s been perfect timing really because we were in this community doing work in schools for 20-30 years. We were poised to make this step. We also had the benefit of learning from what the other partners had done. We didn’t just bring in our programs, of which we have many, we started with listening and a community advisory process. A highly rigorous community advisory process, we had a professional strategic planner. It was slow and it was very intentional. It took maybe nine months and we met discussed what the needs of the community are and we did asset mapping of what the community already had, we’re not here to reinvent the wheel. Then we came up with some of the goals and ways that The Phillips could best serve the community and be true to The Phillips identity. We started program development, because this is by and for the community. It’s totally co-created.
BYT: What are your goals?
Wright: Our goals are really to support the community through art and wellness and arts integrated learning. All of these [activities] are constructed to have wellness components. And one of our goals is to work with the different partners. It can’t be co-created with the community, if you’re not working with the community. That’s been awesome. This place is awesome, the partners are great. It’s just like dating, everybody is different and we’re just having a cup of coffee and then you go on the first date. We’re working with Levine Music on a program for older adults and we’re working with Children’s Hospital, who will have their clinic right here, on a program called “Create While You Wait” and that will be our signature art and wellness program. It’s a creativity workshop, but some of the stations are going to be particularly designed for kids coming in with appointments to get shots.
BYT: Something every kid hates.
Wright: Exactly, the high anxiety appointments. On the flip side, one of the other things that came from the community, and THEARC, was that they already have a lot of programs for kids. What they don’t have is programs for adults, or older adults. So one of our primary audiences is caregivers and parents.
BYT: I’m glad you brought that up because it seems as if you have three main audiences, children, caregivers and seniors. How did you dial into those three separate age groups?
Wright: We already do K-12, so that was sort of a no brainer because we do it really well. We have two programs. One is Prism K-12 and the other, Art Links to Learning, is a partnership program where we go really deep into specific schools. We’ve done our focus groups, we’ve done our evaluations and our research. The way we connect with DCPS is different than the way the National Gallery can connect with DCPS. We can’t bring the whole fourth grade of DCPS to The Phillips, but we can do a magnificent job partnering with one school, because we’re intimate and we tailor what we do to people’s needs. We work with each teacher, they have office hours with our staff and we’re teaching them how to do arts integration. So for the kids, it was a natural. The older adults and caregivers really came out of this community advisory committee process. So we were totally open. We have a little boutique program for older adults…
BYT: So you dipped your toes into that a little bit?
Wright: Yeah, and art and wellness is sort of a natural for The Phillips. That’s why Duncan Phillips founded the museum. As a place of solace to be joy giving and life enhancing after his deep melancholia because of the death of his brother and father. We know that it’s a good match for our identity. And you know, we’ve dipped our toes in… We have a meditation tour audio guide and we’ve done yoga in the gallery. We do different things.
BYT: You have the Rothko Chapel, which requires no programming.
Wright: I know! It’s so interesting now with all of the neuroscience behind the impact of not just looking at, but engaging with, works of art and how they can calm and rechannel your brain. It’s really quite breathtaking. Anyway, we could have done a whole bunch of different things, but we’re following the communities lead. It’s exciting for us.
For caregivers, it’s a challenge though because people immediately think we just work with kids. And they’re like, “Oh, my kids want to do that.” There’s a mental, emotional barrier to self care. In this community, that is ratcheted way up. When you’re worried about some basic needs, the idea of self care is a luxury. So flipping that narrative to be “self care is survival” is one of the things we’re working on.
BYT: What have the challenges been when it comes to getting adults in the door?
Wright: We’re working on it. We’re not there yet. It’s all going to be about partnerships, like working with AppleTree and their family engagement. So the exhibition that’s up right now is a parent and child exhibition. This workshop was actually a series, we got parents in the door with their kids because they knew their work was going to be displayed. So that was very successful. We just launched our first parent / caregiver workshop last Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day. It was very small, but it was wonderful. The community advisory committee still meets and that was the topic for the March meeting, how do we engage parents and caregivers and the idea of survival vs. indulgence. We’re really just at the beginning of that.
Our challenge is telling the story and not having people immediately assume this is just for kids. I don’t want our language to be like, “NO, NO KIDS!” of course it’s for children. We’ve had a lot of open house type things and to see a child draw on the wall with this purple marker… And then to watch her mom enjoy herself, have a cup of coffee and do her own artwork at the same time was just this… breathtaking thing.
BYT: When The Phillips @ THEARC first opened, the gallery space was filled with photos of African American Yacht Club in the US… How often is the exhibition going to change and how do you decide what it’s going to be?
Wright: So that came out of the community advisory committee. One of the members is a woman named Toni Ford and she has a elders theatre company called Double Nickels Theater, she collects narratives of community members and turns them into different things. So she had a project to capture the stories of the Seafarers. Through talking, we said The Phillips could photograph them and hire professional photographers and then make it into an exhibition story. It met our goals, focus on the assets of the southeast community, a lot of the Seafarers are older adults. It was really a good match. Most of our shows though, will come directly out of our programming, like the parent child workshop. The next show will be student work from the girl’s school that we’re partnering with. The Phillips is really listening to the work we do here. It will slowly have an impact on what happens at Dupont Circle, so these exhibitions are going back and forth. The AppleTree show will go to The Phillips next. Each of these shows will have two venues.
BYT: Did you guys decide who was on the advisory team? Did THEARC already have one? How did that group get started?
Wright: THEARC did not. We developed it, but we relied heavily on THEARC’s community connections. We wanted it to be people that are living in the community and people who work in the community, like our partners. They might not experience the daily life, but they are deeply connected to it. And then Phillips staff. At the beginning, it was more of that middle group and some of the community members and now we have a really good group of community members. So, it’s grown. We also showed up a lot. We would go to community meetings and we would meet people, learn who the influencers are and we would invite them.
On the Phillips side, it’s been so wonderful that curatorial has participated and development has participated. There’s this listening happening and that will be part of this back and forth. It’s not just an outpost that’s totally isolated.
BYT: You’ve mentioned your partnerships with different THEARC members quite a bit, how do you decide who to team up with?
Wright: It’s very fluid. All of the partners here would be a good fit. At the moment, we just have a certain bandwidth. We want to be the good new neighbor. Levine was a natural because they have a program for older adults already. Children’s was a natural partner because they’re going to be right next door and we want to do art and wellness. Those were just naturals, but AppleTree was a surprise. We didn’t want to bother AppleTree and the boy’s school while they were moving in, but they were all into it. With their really strong family engagement component, it’s a natural match. They had a template, a parent child workshop they had done in NW, and they were like, “Hey, can we do a similar thing here?” So that was a surprise.
With schools, that’s different. There has to be some real transparency. We’ll work with any of the art partners, there’s 15 art partners and we’ll work with all of them in some capacity. With schools, there’s an application process and there has to be real principal buy in and the school has to be at a certain place.
BYT: With summer coming up, will your programming be changing since kids will be out of school?
Wright: Yes. We’re partnering with Levine and the Washington Ballet on their summer camps. So we will have children in here every day… Then we’ll get their parents in too. See what your kids did today, come and get dinner! We’ll do a variant on sip and paints.
BYT: What’s your dream program?
Wright: It would be to have these regular workshops for parents. Parents could come every week and we would have babysitting and we would have food and they have an hour to themselves. Resilience is such an important thing, and for them to be able to deepen their connection with themselves and reboot through art. Art is such a powerful medium to help with that. That’s my dream program, it’s more of a pattern, not just one big program, but we want The Phillips to be a safe and brave space. Particularly for caregivers.
BYT: Where do you want this space to be in five years? What will success look like for you?
Wright: That the [Phillips] will be all over the community and that people identify The Phillips as a place to come and have an awesome arts experience. That this place is hopping from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. That we have data from our work with Children’s Hospital on the benefits of arts related therapies for supporting parents and kids in their wellness.